Bonnie Raitt’s singular appeal and strength is in her roots. She reaches all the way back to the classic blueswoman of the Twenties for both her joyful bawdiness and her righteous, don’t-mess-with-me self-assurance, and has come up with a stance as modern as the diaphragm. So it was a rare thrill, not to say a near-miracle, for all concerned that Bonnie could simply turn to the wings and welcome onstage Detroit blueswoman Sippie Wallace, the direct source of much of her inspiration, who, coincidentally, was celebrating her 77th birthday that night.
Bonnie graciously explained later, “It was from Sippie that I first learned this type of song, where I didn’t always have to be on the shaft side of a relationship”, which point of view was potently set out as she kicked into her own “Love Me Like A Man”.
Apparently Bonnie, who is touring nationally with folk poet/drunkard Tom Waits, decided to take full advantage of her Ann Arbor date by arranging with UAC, campus promoters of the affair, to book country bluesman Robert Pete Williams, and Chicago blues artists Buddy Guy and Jr. Wells, in addition to Sippie.
It was an evening of musical entertainment and instruction that easily spanned divers locales, epochs, and idioms, all the while demonstrating the unbroken lineage connecting these artists.
Robert Pete Williams, whose talent was first discovered, or at least first recorded, at the Angola State Prison, played a pleasant, idiosyncratic opening set. The handsome, fiftyish bluesinger eschews the standard 8 or 12-bar forms. He’d sing a line and play his guitar simply and effectively for as long or as short as he felt like. It made for some diverting country music.
Guitarist Buddy Guy and vocalist premier harmonicat Jr. Wells have, in the past 5 years, probably performed their sweaty, boozy more often in Ann Arbor than anywhere else other than their native Chicago. This night the band was relatively subdued, at least visually. Highlights included every solo Buddy took and the band’s performance of Jr.’s greatest hit, “Messin’ With The Kid.”
When Sippie hobbled out (she suffered a bad stroke three years ago) the first thing she did was to improvise a loving tribute to Bonnie on the piano. She then sang a churchy blues, “Loving You The Way I Do,” “Mighty Tight Woman,” and the gospel tune “Stand By Me.” It was all very affecting and the crowd responded with a standing ovation and then sang her “Happy Birthday.”
Bonnie came out with a strong four-man band that was easily able to reproduce her recorded sound, minus the strings, of course (just as well, I say). She was loose and lovely and clearly moved by the affection Ann Arbor showered on her. She wove her spell from familiar material done with her usual passion, including “Everybody Cryin’ Mercy”, “Give It Up Or Let Me Go” (on which she played a beautiful slide guitar solo), “Fool Yourself,” “Angel From Montgomery,” etc.
Sippie came out and she and her protogee muscled their way through “Women Be Wise” and “You’ve Been In Love Too Long,” joined onstage by Sippie’s dancing machine of a granddaughter, Tammy. Everybody was up and rocking – the only way, after all, to end an evening of such energy and inspiration.